Saturday, December 28, 2013


Leaves have fallen but seeds persist amongst white fluff, dark brown cones or beaded along erect and bended stem. The birds have pecked some clean leaving gray skeletons and little straw-like stars. The color palette ranges from white through pink to beige. Beneath is a carpet of brown oak leaves through which robins and white-throated sparrows scratch and peck for grubs and spilled seed. Nature, left to its own devices, creates this muted beauty in a winter’s garden. A garden left alone to complete a life’s cycle. No power tools are necessary.

 Rake versus Blower

The wind rustles the trees and birds twitter from bare branches. 
Rake scrapes in a steady rhythm and pushes golden leaves into a rough and tumble pile.

Blower makes its own wind. 
A deafening roar that coerces nature’s bounty to be tidied up and put out of the way.

Using rake is wholesome exercise. 
Blower makes it all a chore.

The fuel for rake is from burning calories. 
A human body is warmed in the cool crisp air, which has the sweet smell of fall. 

Blower burns fossil fuel. 
A motor becomes hot and releases toxic fumes.

Rake caresses red leaf of maple, orange mitt of sassafras and leathery brown of oak.
Blower makes all a blur and a whir.

Neighbors stop for a chat when rake is in operation.
Doors, windows, blinds, and ears, are closed and covered when blower blows.

Rake makes free mulch that feeds the soil.
Blower leaves behind a blasted bare earth and long rows of leaf bags.

Robins and sparrows scratch and peck for food once rake is put away.
A naked soil must bear winter’s wrath after blower has done its job.

Rake has the last word.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Milkweed and the Tale of the Mummy

Oleander aphids on milkweed

The leaves on the milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca) in the meadow are shriveling to yellow and crinkly brown. Yet upon closer inspection there is still some life along the plant’s folds and stems. A milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) avoids my gaze and moves to the underside of a leaf and along the stem there are clusters of Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii) being farmed by tiny red ants. The aphids have an orange color, because just like the larvae of the milkweed beetle and monarch butterfly caterpillar, they acquire glycosides from the milkweed sap, which renders them toxic to predators. The ants protect the colonies of aphids because they feed off the honeydew, which is secreted by the tiny black tubes, or cornicles, on the aphid’s rear ends. With the first frost the aphids, ants and beetle will be gone and the milkweed plant will wither and retreat into the ground. Even if I had discovered these aphids during the growing season I would have left them well alone as a wasp parasitizes large numbers of them. Female wasps (Lysiphlebus testaceipes) lay their eggs in aphid nymphs. As the parasitoid wasp develops and consumes the insides of the nymph the aphid’s body turns color. The wasps finally emerge leaving behind brown papery mummies. Infestations of aphids on plants that are more ornamental are dealt with a soapy spray. But in this wildlife habitat garden I let nature take its course and leave the parasitoid wasps to do their thing.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Berries for Wildlife's Winter Table

Goldenrod flowers are fading to brown from gold, but berries are now ripening and readying for wildlife’s winter table. I searched around my garden to see what is on offer. The young Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) plants have large clusters of shiny red berries. They will persist well into winter and cheer the winter landscape while providing sustenance for the northern mocking bird, the American robin and the brown thrasher.

The flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida) in my garden is not in the best of health, but it hangs in there and produces brilliant red berries, which will feed the northern flicker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the eastern towhee. 

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a robust weed that people love to hate, but I let it grow in the wilder parts of my garden. In the Fall it comes into its own when it sports clusters of juicy, purple berries on magenta pink stems. The berries provide sustenance for migrating birds. This plant has been used for dye, ink for the pen that signed the Declaration of Independence and a spring vegetable, which is high in vitamins A and C. In southern states young shoots are canned and sold as “Poke Sallet”. All other parts of the plant, including the berries, are poisonous.

Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) produces tiny little red apples (it belongs in the apple family). This is a very tart fruit, which will persist on the shrub and provide winter interest in the garden before becoming palatable enough for a late winter feast for birds.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosa) looks a little bedraggled this year because we have had little rainfall lately. This plant grows in the shady wilder parts of my garden and usually at this time of the year it has golden yellow leaves and plump red berries, which are relished by birds.

Tea viburnum (Viburnum setigerum) is a plant I uncovered at the edge of my garden in the tangled wood. It will be interesting to see what will eat the berries of this non-native plant. Right now I am enjoying this shrub’s ornamental properties and I am assuming insect pollinators were responsible for these gorgeous red clusters.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Front lawn transformed into habitat

September 2013

A habitat garden shows its true worth at this glorious time of the year. Bumblebees, many kinds of solitary bee, predatory wasps, locust borers, tiny flower flies and countless insects (I am only just beginning to know how to identify) are in a feeding frenzy on goldenrods and asters. Flowering grasses are pollinated for copious seed. Butterflies sip the last supplies of nectar. I feel the sun’s warmth and the sheer energy of color and movement as I stand nearby and just watch.

Compare the scene above with the ivy-covered “desert” of three years ago. The front lawn was already over-run and suppressed with English ivy, where the swathe of invading green seemed all the more somber from a lack of biodiversity. I have pulled and rolled up many bags-worth of tenacious tendril to restore this area. I think you will agree that my efforts have paid off.

September 2010

Sunday, August 11, 2013


There is such activity and “buzziness” in the midday sun. Countless bees are nectaring from the hollow-stemmed Joe Pye weed. Wasps and flower flies are attracted to the nectar of bronze fennel flowers and the swallowtail butterflies have discovered the butterfly weed. On the pale pink blossom of Joe Pye weed there are too many kinds of bee for me to identify. I can differentiate the bumblebees, the honeybees, carpenter bees and metallic green sweat bees, but there are many more visitors of all shapes and sizes. I am a little disturbed not to have seen any monarch butterflies visiting the garden this summer. But the leaves of the common milkweed plant have been nibbled upon. The butterfly weed has only just bloomed and the sight of the spicebush swallowtails and an eastern tiger swallowtail heartens me. The cheerful sound of goldfinches delights me. They sit on the coneflowers and tug at the seed singing all along. I creep to get a good close up photo, but the birds always dash away leaving flower stems bouncing.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ode to an Oak

I have been overcome with sadness and guilt, but the tree had to go. For many months now woodpeckers have been hammering at the bare heartwood of a large leader branch. In the fall, a huge hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa) would billow out from the trunk at ground level. These are sure signs that this tree, close to my heart and to my house, was in decay. I would have hugged this tree if I could have gotten my arms around its wide girth. There it stood, so strong and seemingly permanent, its beautiful grainy bark clearly visible from the front door window. The day the arborist arrived to take it down I felt as if I were putting a favorite pet to sleep.

I have many mature oak trees on my property, but with this mighty plant now gone there is one less to host the myriad of insects, birds and mammals that rely on an oak for survival. Now there is one less tree for the warblers to stop over during migration when they flit about and sing way up there amongst the oak blossom to feed on insects. There is such a void: one less squirrel highway and hideaway; thousands of acorns no longer produced; leaves no longer food for caterpillars of tussock moth, hairstreak, underwings, gall wasp; no more cover from which katydids and cicadas sing. A portion of shade has gone from the house. Hostas and ferns will now fry beneath. 

In the tangled wood behind our house this tree would have provided habitat for many years during its slow demise. Indeed, it is brutal to obliterate a tree from the landscape in one day and I plan to plant an oak seedling in its place but with the realization that it will take decades for such a tree to reach maturity.  I will eventually get used to the gaping hole in the canopy and a stump (albeit with a rotten core) will be a monument to the existence of a wonderful life-giving tree.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Summer. It's about time!


Full moon. Summer solstice. It’s about time for blog entry!

The tangled wood is almost impenetrable and the garden is overwhelmed with weeds after the rains of previous weeks. In honor of National Pollinator Week, I searched for some pollinators amongst the flowers that seem to have bloomed late this season.
Grasshopper on Evening Primrose
I enjoy watching the activity around the penstemon. The tubular flowers fit the bees’ hairy bodies like a glove. It seems that tiny green bees like to visit yellow flowers, such as coreopsis and evening primrose. 

Hidden amongst the flowers and foliage are insects that will take front stage later in the summer, with their song and stridulations. Is that a young grasshopper on the primrose petal? A katydid seeks camouflage on a milkweed leaf.

Katydid on Milkweed Leaf

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Day Greening

Sassafras Flowers

I celebrate this day of fertility rites, workers rights, May queens and maypoles by embracing all that is vernal in my tangled wood and garden: the large bumblebees that roam for nectar; the promise of herbaceous perennial shooting skyward; fiddleheads and knobs of ferns as they too awaken; bird sounds all; dried oak leaves to crumble; spicebush and maple-leaf viburnum defying ivy.

The woodland canopy is colored with green unfurling leaves and the soft browns, beiges and ochre of oak flowers. The house wren has returned. It has been singing loudly and can be seen flitting amongst the lime green sassafras blossom.

 The storm-damaged dogwood tree seems more fragile than ever. But its boughs will support the nesting boxes for at least another year. Its emerging leaves appear v-shaped amongst tentative flower bracts. Springtime brings me hope and energy. 

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A lumber yard for wildlife

A red-bellied woodpecker calls from way up in a tree. It has claimed a hollow, decayed branch for a nest. I spot its brilliant red head protruding from a hole. Judging from all the other birdsong I have been hearing, the nesting season has surely begun. From a spring-clean up of my garden there is quite a pile of dried material that could be put to good use. A lumber yard for wildlife: stems of hollow-stemmed Joe Pye for solitary bees; little bluestem grass leaves for weaving and its fluffy seed for lining a nest; stiffer stems of goldenrod, echinacea and sedum for firmer structure. The adjacent woodpile is a source of twigs, which the male house wren will use to stuff all three of the little wooden bird boxes. I wonder which one the female will pick to raise a brood in this year.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A brown cloak in the sun

There has not been much to report these past few weeks of cruel, late winter. However, there are signs of spring besides emergent flowering bulbs. An ardent song sparrow has been sitting atop the holly bush and singing its heart out even amidst falling late winter snow. Yesterday as I looked out on the garden I spotted a large butterfly. I ran outside into the spring sunshine, camera in hand, because I knew that I had seen a mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), the first of the season and a true harbinger of spring. It landed on a large stone in the sun, wings open so that its dark brown wings could absorb radiant heat from the sun. It sat there for several minutes providing me the opportunity to get a good close-up photograph. Yellow margins on the wing and azure blue iridescent spots add refinery to a somber, brown cloak. After a while the beauty took off and fluttered around me before landing again on my head! I felt a tickle in my hair and a feeling of joy. We have both come through the winter to bask in spring sunshine at last. Mourning cloaks are thought to be the longest-lived of all butterflies. Adults can live up to 10 to 11 months and most of them overwinter. Only some migrate south in the fall.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Promise of spring

Yesterday radiant heat from the sun was melting the blanket of snow and my face was warmed along with my mood. Melt water was audibly dripping revealing flowering snowdrops and crocuses in small pockets of bare earth.

Today is a dull day with snow in the forecast. But the birds are singing as fervently as ever. I’ve been observing them for the Great Backyard Bird Count. The squirrels must be hunkered down because they seem to be leaving the bird feeder alone letting the chickadees and titmice have a free run. A northern cardinal is singing high up in the holly tree. White-throated sparrows are scratching about in exposed leaf litter. A song sparrow spends some time in the safety of the cage surrounding the feeder. A furtive dark-eyed junco is hopping about beneath. A white-breasted nuthatch spirals down the trunk of an oak tree and in the distance I spot a downy woodpecker. Last but not least, the tiny Carolina wren pays a fleeting visit to round off my list.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Un-wanted winter pruners

They usually visit unseen, leaving chewed-off twigs and cloven footprints in the dirt. Lately, I caught sight of a pair of them in the act. They came through a break in the overgrown Japanese ilex hedge. This was just a quick visit, a walk-through for sampling easy to reach plants along a well-trodden path. They seem particularly partial to red-twig dogwood that, I must say, has brilliant red stems in winter because of them. 

Whenever I see a white-tailed deer in the garden I’m torn between admiring their beauty and regretting their very presence.They are only just beginning to frequent gardens in this area. I have seen first-hand the damage deer can do to habitat in woodland and parks and I fear for the native plants and vegetables I plan to plant in my garden.

I cringe when I hear a duck hunter’s gunshot echo from the Sound early on a weekend morning. And, I would probably not like to hear a deer hunter’s gun even more. Besides, I’m not partial to eating venison. But how should we control the burgeoning numbers of this prevalent herbivore? Re-introduce their major predator? We have after all created the problem by reducing areas of wild land for the suburbs. Replacing forest openings with lawn and foraging material with exotic and tender plants. Meanwhile, before we ever come up with a solution I am researching fencing options.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Bright Winter's Light

When I look out on the garden on a snow-less winter’s day I appreciate the subtle colors and textures of this dormant season. Oak leaf litter, furrowed bark, straw, grey fluff of seeds, and black beads of fern have replaced the dominance of leafy green. A blue sky framed by stark tree branches seems all the more vivid. As do a cardinal’s plumage or red twigs of dogwood. In summer months I barely notice the blue on a nuthatch wing, or yellow on a white-throated sparrow. Does the tufted titmouse always sport an orange flank? At the winter bird feeder, against a muted background, the red-bellied woodpecker and all the other hungry visitors reveal their true colors. The seed heads in the meadow have been nibbled and pecked. Now the dried grass stems catch winter breezes and late-afternoon sunbeams.